The Cage(4)


HarperCollins Publishers




AFTER LUCKY WOKE IN a snowdrift with a splitting headache, wearing someone else’s clothes and missing his granddad’s watch, he’d narrowed down the possibilities: either he was going insane, or someone at the mechanic’s shop had dropped a wrench on his head and this was some freakish afterlife. Now, standing opposite the girl with the wheat-blond hair, he knew.

He was definitely dead. And not just dead—he was in hell.

That was the only way to explain Cora Mason.

It had taken him a few moments to recognize her. Ever since waking, it had been all he could do to put one foot in front of the other, fighting the knife of pain in his head. Then, suddenly, there was a beautiful girl with hair so light it matched the sand. She might have been a vision, except visions didn’t dress like they were headed to a rave.

Then she’d looked up, and her features had rearranged themselves, and shit—he knew her. The senator’s daughter accused of manslaughter. He’d followed her story for the last two years, surrounded by her painfully pretty face on television, read reports about how the accident tore apart one of the country’s top political families.

It had torn him apart too. It didn’t matter that he’d never met her. He had been the one responsible for ruining her life. Only two people knew it: him, and her dad—a man who made Lucky’s fist ache with a desire to punch something.

“Who are you?” she demanded.

He rubbed a hand over his chest, where the guilt was still tender as a sucker punch, even after two years. “I’m Lucky. From a little town in Montana called Whitefish. I woke up in the middle of a snowdrift in that forest a couple hours ago; before that, I was working on the busted throttle lock of my motorcycle. That’s all I remember.”

He stopped short, swallowing his words, the ache in his head pulsing like a second heartbeat. Memories of home played in the back of his head. His granddad’s sun-wrinkled face. The smell of chicken feed. Motor oil slick in the lines of his hand, so hard to wash away. He’d been fixing his motorcycle so he could drive to the army recruiting office in Missoula. With your grades, college isn’t an option, his school counselor had said, and slid a brochure across the desk: red, white, and blue font commanding him to do the right thing.

It didn’t matter if enlisting was the right thing. It mattered that his dad, and his granddad, had sat in that same damn chair and gotten that same damn brochure. It mattered that Afghanistan was a long way from the accident that had left his hand busted, and from his mother’s gravestone with the plastic flowers, and from Cora Mason’s face in the newspaper.

A wave pulled the girl’s body out to sea, and Lucky lurched for it. “Shit. Help me grab her. The police will want to check the body.”

Cora eyed the water like she’d rather step into quicksand.

“Okay . . . then we’d do Plan B. You stand there and look cute, and I’ll haul out the dead body.”

He approached slowly, giving Cora space as he waded into the surf. He’d never seen a dead body before. Would it be warm? Clammy? The dead girl looked foreign, maybe Middle Eastern, and she had to be close to six feet tall. An old scar marred her chin, in the shape of a lopsided heart.

He cracked the knuckles in his left hand. They were always stiffer when he first woke up.

“You ever done this before?” Cora asked.

“Pulled a dead body out of the ocean? Can’t say I have.” He grabbed the girl under the arms and hauled her to shore. As soon as he was out of the water, Cora helped. They laid her on the sand, and he watched as Cora did a quick check of the body.

“No wallet. No ID.”

The dead girl’s dress strap had fallen. Lucky fixed it, wishing his hands weren’t shaking. He stood up, dusting sand off his palms like he could wipe away the grit of death, and met Cora’s eyes directly for the first time. They were surrounded by dark circles in real life. The photographs in the newspapers hadn’t captured that.

“I’m Cora,” she said.

Now would be the time to tell her that he knew her name, and a lot more. He could tell her about September 3—the day he’d tried to kill her father.

It was two weeks after the accident. He’d broken into his dad’s gun safe. He’d driven to an airfield where Senator Mason’s son was learning to fly a Cessna 172. He’d parked the car and told himself he could do it. He had to. His mother was in the grave, and Senator Mason was patting his son on the back. Carefree. Guiltless.

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